It was a proud day for the West Memorial Elementary School Tuesday morning -- both a day to celebrate and a day to bid farewell.
The school, in a unique honor, was recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense for the staff's "outstanding" efforts with students to instill patriotism and respect for those serving in the military.
The award is called the Seven Seals Award, which is bestowed by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR).
And it was parent Dave Nicholson, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard, who nominated the school and Principal Dr. Tom Cornacchio for the award.
The well wishes were for Nicholson, who is deploying this week to Texas before he heads to Afghanistan for nine months.
Nicholson has two children at the West and praised Cornacchio for regular patriotic assemblies on Patriots, Memorial or Veterans Day, teaching students about the Gettysburg Address, caring for the school's flag, daily reciting the Pledge of Allegiance over the sound system and sending care packages to U.S. soldiers overseas.
"That's the stuff that makes you famous," ESGR regional representative George Charos told a gym full of students.
"I've never been anywhere, and I've been doing this almost 30 years, where they play music and saluted the flag," Charos said. "They have to do it where I work, but they don't do it when I come and visit."
He was referring, of course, to the typical recipients of such awards -- business employers or agencies, not schools. In fact, Charos said, this is the first time he's ever presented this award to an entire school.
He has presented similar awards before to teachers who have also served and the Seven Seals Award to Mass. General Hospital and other organizations.
Most of the time, Charos said, he's actually suing or threatening legal action against employers who give away soldiers' jobs or certain benefits while they're off serving in the military. That's against the law.
Charos, impressed at the stories he's heard from Nicholson about the patriotic spirit and support of veterans at the West School, said he wished his teachers years ago took as much effort.
"I went to a school named the Theodore Roosevelt School, one of the greatest presidents ever; I never knew who he was till I went to college," said Charos. "I didn't know it from my school -- shame on them."
"I didn't have a Dr. C. to make me read about Teddy Roosevelt, to make me do an essay contest to learn how good a president he was. You do and you're really lucky," Charos said.
Cornacchio and Vice-Principal Kathleen Covino also received separate awards for "outstanding performance."
"This is an honor for sure," said Cornacchio, accepting the award. He says his late father's experiences as a World War II veteran have instilled in him a deep appreciation for citizen soldiers.
"Together we thank all those citizen soldiers who have sacrificed for us so that we can have the best free public education in the world," he said. "Boys and girls, we owe them our best efforts."
Sen. Joan Lovely, Mayor Ted Bettencourt, city councilor Barry Sinewitz, Peabody Veterans Council Commander Bob Dunne and Superintendent Joe Mastrocola all spoke briefly as well. School Committee members Dave McGeney, Tom Rossignoll, Brandi Carpenter and Beverley Griffin Dunne also attended the ceremony.
"We're very lucky to have people who live in our city, in our country, like David Nicholson who gives of himself to protect all of us, and those are special people who deserve special recognition," said Bettencourt.
"I hear nothing but good things about the West School," he said. "This is a wonderful honor, you should be very proud of yourselves."
Bob Dunne also urged the students to keep in touch with Nicholson while he's in Afghanistan -- he said he greatly appreciated it when he was deployed in Iraq.
"I know the Carroll School wrote to me even though it wasn't my school. You guys all have to write to him. That way it will keep him busy and he can write back to you," Dunne said.
Nicholson, who is an engineer in the National Guard, said that his duties involve facilities management and training Afghanis, generally away from any combat zones. Transportation between sites, however, can still run the risk at times.
Sinewitz said he grew up with Nicholson -- they went to the old Kennedy Junior High and Peabody Veterans Memorial High School together -- and knows there's another side now to the sacrifice his friend is making in addition to serving overseas.
"He's not going to be there to have dinner with his children, he's not going to be there to read them a bedtime story, he's not going to be there to tuck them in at night," Sinewitz said. "We want to make sure that his children are supported and give them any help they need."
Cornacchio and Covino assured Nicholson his children would be well cared for in his absence.
"I just want you to know, Dave, that the West family, we're going to keep a close eye Abbie Mae and James, and hurry home, Dave," said Cornacchio.
"Congratulations, Dr. C. and Mr. Nicholson, you are in our hearts, thoughts and prayers," said Covino, her voice full of emotion. "Don't worry about your children, we will take care of them."
"The West is the best, always has been the best and will continue to be the best," she said.